Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fairy-Tale Success by Adrienne Arieff and Beverly West

The subtitle of Fairy-Tale Success is "A Guide to Entrepreneurial Magic." I don't know about the magic part, but it certainly is a lively, interesting, and practical guide for young women who are thinking of starting a business.

Adrienne Arieff is "a PR, digital, and marketing communications professional." Her co-author, Beverly West, is "an author, developmental editor and new media producer." They use the Cinderella story as the scaffolding on which they construct the book so chapters have titles like Reveal Your Noble Roots (know who you are, what you like, how you want to live); Wish Out Loud (vision statement, business plan); Make Practical Magic (funding); Summon Your Fairy Godmothers (networking); Hear Ye, Hear Ye (harnessing social media); Make a Grand Entrance (launching your brand); Keep Your Eye on the Crown (staying focused); When the Clock Strikes Twelve, Don't Panic (dealing with setbacks and obstacles); and If the Glass Slipper Fits, Wear It (enjoying success).

The book is written for young women. Indeed, sampling their own recipe the authors quote their own vision statement: "We want to write and publish a book that raises awareness about the opportunities for young women to become entrepreneurs in today's economy. We want to create a platform for young entrepreneurs to connect and engage with each other both on- and off-line...." All their inspirational examples and interviews—and there are several dozen—are from young women who have had or are having business experience.

Every chapter follows the same pattern: a chunk of the original fairy tale, a discussion of how it relates to the chapter's material, interviews and anecdotes from young women, quotes from well-known businesspeople, and the chapter's concluding principles. I found the advice solid. In Chapter 8, for example, dealing with setbacks, Arieff and West write: "Don't speculate. No matter how sure you are about something, don't suggest that you know things that you may not. The worst way to respond to a crisis is to create another one based on false information that you are presenting as truth. So know the facts and don't stray from then. Don't assume, or imagine, or believe, or guess, or wish. Only say things that you objectively know to be true, once you've gathered the facts and checked them twice." Good advice for all of us at all times.

I was also struck by a "Words of Wisdom from Fairy Godparents," these from Virginia Romerty, CEO of IBM: "I learned to always take on things I'd never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist."

My only quibble is with the throwaway line about SCORE in the "Resources" section: "If you find yourself in need of mentoring from en entrepreneur who's already been through it all, SCORE can help you find a mentor." In fact, SCORE's counselors can and will do far more to help a prospective entrepreneur develop business, financial, and marketing plans. SCORE is an affiliate of the Small Business Administration, and its services are free.

Nevertheless, if you know a high school or college student who is leaning in toward business, Fairy-Tale Success can be thought-provoking, inspiring, and useful.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hawaiki Rising by Sam Low

Hawaiki Rising is a fascinating book. Its accurate subitle is "Hokule'a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance," and author Sam Low tells all three stories: Hokule'a, canoe's creation, mishap, and ultimate success; how Nainoa Thompson learned to navigate the Pacific; and canoe's the effect on Hawaiian culture.

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl floated on a balsa raft from Peru to the Tuamotu island in the south Pacific to show that Polynesians who settle the Pacific islands came from South America. An interesting theory, but wrong. Modern research has show that the Polynesians share a genetic heritage with the peoples of southeast Asia. So how did they get to these dots of land scattered over thousands of square miles of ocean?

Early Western explorers in their square riggers discovered native canoes, some 100-feet long, that could sail circles around their ships. They had fore-and-aft rigged sails that allowed them to sail upwind. But of course they had no compass, sextant, chronometer, or chart, the western tools of navigation. Nevertheless, in 1973 a group of men and women on Hawaii decided to build and learn to sail a 60-foot-long version of one of the early ocean-going canoes—the Hokule'a. To sail it, they recruited one of the last native navigators in the world, Mau Piailug from the island of Satawal.

The author, Sam Low, who has sailed on three voyages on the Hokule'a, does a fine job of explaining to the layman (this layman, anyway), how Pialug and later Nainoa Thompson find their way from Hawaii to Tahiti using nothing but their knowledge of the stars, ocean currents, weather, and the natural world. If you see birds, you are within 100 miles of land. The book is illustrated with photographs, maps, and drawings to help clarify the principles. (When distance between the star Edasich and Pherkad is the same as between Pherkad and the horizon, you are a 5 degrees south latitude. There will be a test later.)

In 1976, the Hokule'a sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti, Mau Piailug navigating. There was so much tension and dissension between the white and native Hawaiian crew members that Piailug quit the project and flew home to his native island. This voyage was documented by a National Geographic film crew in a chase boat, which had to have changed the dynamics of the trip somewhat. Nainoa joined the Hokule'a for the return trip to Hawaii and in time resolved learned to navigate as Piailug had learned.

The canoe became a symbol of Polynesian skill and intelligence. In the 1980, archeologists discovered the ruins of a 1,300-year-old village on Hawaii, including pig bones—those people brought their animals with them and planned to settle. Low sketches the baleful effect the missionaries followed by the white traders had on native Polynesian culture. "The old ceremonies were stopped when the church came," Mau is quoted as saying. "That's why I don't like the church, because when the church come, when Christians come, everything is gone. Missing. The people follow the Christians. That's no good. Why are we going to follow customs from outside? Why we throw away our own customs? They throw away medicine, they throw away magic and now it's too late to try to pick them up again. Everybody who knew the old customs has passed away."

At the beginning of a second voyage to Tahiti, the Hokule'a capsized in a storm and one of the crew was lost at sea attempting to swim to one of the Hawaiian island. The canoe was almost lost, but was towed back to O'ahu, refitted and—under Coast Guard pressure—slightly redesigned to be safer. In other words, Low's book is not a report of one bright moment following another. The Epilogue does report however that in the years between 1980 when Hokule'a sailed successfully from Hawaii to Tahiti with Nainoa as navigator, and 2007 five more ocean-going canoes were built and 16 men had been trained as navigators.

Hawaiki Rising is a fascinating history, biography, and adventure story that describes a culture and way of life that was almost lost.


Friday, August 22, 2014

Island by Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod died in April this year (2014) at the age of 77. The New York Times obituary reported that he was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, the son of a coal miner, in 1936. His parents were Gaelic-speaking Cape Breton natives who had moved from the island to seek work. When Alistair was 10, they moved back to Cape Breton. MacLeod worked as a logger, coal miner, and fisherman, earned a teaching certificate from Nova Scotia Teachers College, two bachelors  degrees from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia; a master’s in English from the University of New Brunswick; and a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. He published his first short story in 1969, his last in 1999. Island contains all sixteen of his stories.

Sixteen stories in thirty years. John Updike may have written sixteen stories a month. But what MacLeod lacks in volume he more than makes up for in quality. While I did not find every one of these sixteen equally accessible, I found the least engaging story to be superior fiction.

They are all set on or off the coast of Cape Breton. Most of them are set at a time before electricity, telephones, and mechanized farm equipment. The characters a miners, tunneling into coal seams; fishermen and lobstermen, taking small boats onto treacherous waters; and farmers, trying to raise and bring in enough hay during the short growing season to sustain the animals through the brutal winter. Two of the most powerful stories—"In the Fall" and "Winter Dog"—convey a complex and intense relationship between animal and human, a relationship far more profound and complex than a woman's with her house cat, a man's with a pet dog.

MacLeod's descriptions of the natural world are marvels, almost poetry. For example,

"It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thing oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagull mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contain no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation—the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair."

And within this natural world of implacable ocean, scarred landscape, and brutal winters, the characters live as best they can. The men impregnate their wives repeatedly, drink, and fish and log and watch the seasons change. The women have five, six, a dozen children, garden, cook and mend, and wait for their husbands and sons to come home from the sea, from the mine, from the logging camp. In more than one story, MacLeod is able to portray an entire life, virtually from beginning to end, choosing and describing those key moments that gave the life its shape.

Let me quote three other writers because they say what I think better than I can say it: Colm Tóibin: "These stories have slowly become famous for their control of tone and cadence and for MacLeod's ability to handle pure, raw emotion." Michael Ondaatje: "Alistair MacLeod's stories are as regional and universal as the work of Faulkner or Chekhov. And they are, I think, as permanent." Thomas Curwen: "Like the great writer W. G. Sebald, MacLeod wanders across the landscape he claims as his own and lets the wandering reveal its meaning, content to know that the deeper you pour yourself into a reaction, the more you transcend the particulars and give the stories a universal sheen, an intimate gloss. It is a triumph of detail slowly spilled over the pages. MacLeod's deepening sense of the world and of the people whose lives he is responsible for gives each scene its bittersweet poignancy."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Submission by Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman, a former co-chief of the South Asia bureau of The New York Times, had an interesting idea for an novel: What would happen if the winner of a competition for the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial design turned out to be Muslim?

The novel begins with the jurors debating the merits of the anonymous submissions, finally settling on the design of a garden. Only when Paul Rubin, the patrician, former CEO of a major bank and responsible for the competition's management, opens the envelope that identifies the garden's designer does anyone involved realize they've chosen one Mohammad Khan's design.

Khan is an entirely secular, American architect, raised in Virginia, an employee of a top New York architectural firm (that did not know he was entering the competition). He is in his mid-thirties, single, and with a best friend in the firm is already planning to establish his own practice. Winning such a prestigious commission, of course, will make his name.

Awarding a Muslim's design for the Ground Zero memorial would also—in the view of many good Americans—desecrate the memories of those who died in the tragedy. In fact, some can see the garden as honoring the Muslim terrorists. It's a situation in which no one can be neutral.

And in The Submission, they're not. Waldman has a large cast and tells her story from several points of view: Mohammad Khan who entered the competition in good faith, won fairly, and is now being attacked for being the child of immigrant parents who are almost as secular as their son. Claire Burwell, the wealthy widow of a senior executive killed on 9/11, who fights for the garden's design. Rubin, friend of the governor and mayor, trying to control and maintain reason in a uncontrollable and unreasonable situation. Sean Gallagher, brother of a Brooklyn fireman who was killed, and for whom stopping the garden becomes a quest. Alyssa Spier, a young reporter on the make, who breaks the story of the Muslim's design and becomes a tabloid star. Asama Anwar, an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant, whose husband died in the attack. Mix together with a female NY State governor with her eye on national office; a Fox-news-style talk show host; a very modern, very secular, very sexy female lawyer with an Iranian background; a paternal Bangladeshi who can interpret American life and English; a Muslim American Coordinating Council, and more, and the stew is almost too rich.

The situation is interesting, the writing is professional, the ending is a stretch but plausible, but I found I was able to put The Submission down and felt no real compulsion to pick it back up. Part of the problem may well be my reading habits and taste. Part of it may be that 9/11 is so traumatic that no book can deal with it adequately. Part of it may be the challenge of making such a diverse cast of characters be both compelling individuals and representatives of the difference forces at play in the situation. While Mohammad Khan is hardly a cardboard symbol around which the others revolve, I don't feel Waldman gives us enough to make him live off the page.

Nevertheless, The Submission is a better-than-average novel. Waldman devotes herself to important questions and themes, one of which is that frightened people do terrible things. A lesson about which it's worth being reminded.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

It is hard to believe that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a first novel by someone younger than 30. True, Anthony Marra received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has won a number of awards: a Whiting, a Pushcart Prize, the Narrative Prize. the National Book Critics Circle's inaugural John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, and the inaugural Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. My opinion: He deserves them all.

The novel, a work of research and invention, is set in Chechnya and the characters move between a village and Grozny, the capital. It covers five days in 2004 during the second Chechnen War with flashbacks and—interestingly—flash forwards. The three main characters are an eight-year-old girl, Havaa, who watches Russian soldiers abduct her father and burn down her house; Akhmed, a Muslim GP, who rescues Havaa from the forest and takes her to Grozny and a ruined hospital where Sonja is the only doctor left.

The novel's title is a Russian medical dictionary's definition of "life." The theme is how to live in a world of random violence, torture, land mines, and death. I know, it does not sound appealing, but Marra's language, feeling for his characters, and story carried me along. Here is a sample of the writing:

"And Grozny appeared, gray on the horizon asthe road devolved to a basin of broken masonry and trampled apartment blocks. Cigarette kiosks slouched on the sidewalk. Akhmed wished he had taken paper and a pencil with him to capture his first trip to the city. Sonja brought the jeep to a crawl as they tipped into a crater. The street rose and disappeared somewhere above them, the whole world of dark wet earth, the tires spinning and reaching the lip. No scent drifted through the open window but the engine burn. No sewage or raw waste. Nothing. A flattened bureau basked in the sun, knobs pried out. The flicker of an oil-drum fire three blocks out came as a small, welcome signal of human habitation. Behind the flame a man turned a rotisserie fashioned from clothes hangers and a gardening stake on which was impaled a pink fist of flesh. . . ."

I had not realized as I read the book that Marra is not Chechnen and not Russian (although he spent a college semester in Russia). He told The New York Times “Research is not an obstacle, something to be frightened of. It can be one of the real joys of writing. Someone once said, ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.’But to make a book convincing, it’s less important that the right tree be in the right place than that the characters are emotionally real. I did the best I could to make the environment and the setting as realistic as possible, but I hope it’s the characters and the emotional reality that make the book true.” They do. They do.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Updike by Adam Begley

I hardly need to laud Adam Begley's biography of John Updike; the reviews I've seen have been universally positive. I could add to the praise, but what would be the point? Begley has taken a subject who spent most of his working life at a typewriter, was not alcoholic, did not do drugs, was never arrested, was not abused as a child and published almost 500 fascinating pages about his life.
Rather, let me point out a few points that struck me.

Updike was enormously productive: more than 20 novels, several hundred short stories, eight collections of poetry, book reviews, art criticism, and more. He did all this without an agent. shepherding his works through the press himself, read voraciously, carried on voluminous correspondence (invaluable sources for a biographer), played golf twice a week, volunteered for numerous civic duties, and enjoyed an agitated social and romantic life, and "also found time to wrestle the vines off the roof of the barn or to fit a new door in the living room." Would that I were so productive.

Updike, it seems, existed on two levels: his actual, lived experience while simultaneously recording the experience as future material. Begley describes the scene when Updike tells his children at the dinner table that he and his first wife Joan are getting divorced, a scene Updike used in a short story he wrote a couple of weeks later: "Taking a step back from the fiction (in this case, bare fact artfully arranged), we see Updike's tears flowing at the same prodigious rate, with the same range of significance, and more: the added amazement that he could sit weeping through this traumatic meal and navigate its equally traumatic denouement, all the while gathering up and filing away the detailed impressions that would later give life to a short story." Even as he was truly anguished, he was watching himself being anguished.

Of course, what else can a creative writer draw on but experience? Research will take you only so far and knowledgeable readers can recognize the difference between researched and felt material. Updike himself said nine months into his second marriage, "One of the problems of being a fiction writer is that of gathering experience. The need for seclusion, and the respectability that goes with some success, both are very sheltering—they cut you off from painful experience. We all want to avoid painful experience, and yet painful experience is your chief resource as a writer."

But why write fiction at all? Updike and Tom Wolfe in a dust-up gave two different reasons. Wolfe wrote that the aim of fiction was to expose the "status structure of society." The individual matters only because of his "intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him," said Wolfe. As Begley comments, "The inner life of a creature who stands on just two feet hardly figures in Wolfe's scheme...."

In contrast, Updike wrote that "Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that Mankind has ever invented." He denied that fiction should be read for the kind of information journalists report: "Unlike journalism . . . fiction does not give us facts snug in their accredited truth . . . we make fiction true as we read it."

Certainly anyone who enjoys Updike's writings should read this biography. Anyone who is serious about his or her own writing should also read it. (I found Begley's chapters roiling my own memories and made notes for half a dozen new stories.) And finally anyone who enjoys a masterful biography of an interesting life should read it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Damn Love by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara

Damn Love is an interesting collection of nine stories. They are linked by place—they are mostly set in San Francisco and Durham, North Carolina—and by characters. A minor character in one story will be the protagonist in another. Each story, however, stands alone and can be read in random order. You don't need to know, for example, that Weasel, the drug addict protagonist in the eighth story, is a patient of Ruth, the doctor protagonist in the first story. But because characters turn up in different roles in different stories, the book gains in richness and resonance.

This is Jasmine Beach-Ferrara's first book. She has an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, but does not suffer from what I consider the MFA-disease: glorious sentences in stories that have no content (or about young people in dead-end jobs and dead-end romances). She is a minister in the United Church of Christ and the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, which promotes LGBT rights in the South. On the evidence of Damn Love she has already had a full and interesting life.

The main characters, male and female, are lesbian and gay. The stories evoke the ecstasy and pain of love—love unrequited, love requited, love lost, damn love. They involve love between two women, between two men, between parents and children, and between siblings. And it's never easy. Here's how one story begins:

"In early May, Doctors Reddi and Lombardo shocked each other by confessing that they had fallen in love with the same woman. That Reddi and Lombardo were best friends and that this woman, Erin Champion, had been married to another woman for six years meant that it would be a difficult season for all of them. They knew this, and yet they could not help themselves."

In some stories, the main character tells her or his own story. In others, Beach-Ferrara uses the third person point of view. In all the stories, the characters struggle with what they want, what they can get, and what they have to settle for—just like real life.

One of the stories I found especially strong in a strong collection is "Love the Soldier." Keisha, who is gay, is a cop and a member of the National Guard about to be deployed to Iraq with her MP unit. She and her partner are trying to finally put away a Durham drug dealer and when Keisha is off duty she is trying to deal with her parents. Her mother doesn't want her to go, and if she has to, to get office duty. Her father is a preacher who opposes the war. Toward the end of the story, Keisha and her mother (and 1,000 parishioners) attend a Sunday service in which her father preaches about the war and his daughter's involvement in it. The lesson: As one should hate the sin but love the sinner, hate the war but love the soldier. Powerful, persuasive, and moving.